Our country is in the throes of rapid industrialisation, which is often accompanied with massive environmental and social burdens, principally borne by communities living in the vicinity of project sites. Monitoring tools like Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), therefore, assume great significance in ensuring sound economic development without compromising on environmental and social costs.
It is said that everyone from the Prime Minister downwards, is concerned with the process of environmental clearances: the process takes too much time, it is cumbersome and impedes the breakneck speed of progress. The entire clearance process is currently marked by inefficiencies and a regulatory framework that is routinely manipulated. Public participation, for instance, is today marked by sham hearings, more to satisfy a formality, and less as a crucial tool to involve people in the decision-making process.
It is quite clear that if the environment clearance process is not rigorous or reliable, it will impinge on growth. People who are affected by a bad industrial project - because it pollutes their water or land or displaces them without compensation - will protest. They will go to court. The democratic framework of the country will assist them to get justice. The protest will hold up the project. Again, if a project leads to environmental damage - destroys forest ecosystems, biodiversity gene pools - environmentalists will protest. Again, a project will be embroiled in controversy and get delayed.
Governing equitable growth is important because impoverishment in India is exacerbated by environmental degradation. We cannot afford bad environmental management because it will not lead to progress. But it only will lead to deterioration in the environment.
So it is necessary to strengthen the process, turn it into an audit. It must be done not to ‘clear’ a project, but to substantially review and revise it so that affected people and concerned citizens know the project is for the benefit of all, and not for the greedy sake of some.
With key stakeholders still in the dark about the clearance process, the abilities of both regulators and affected communities to deconstruct the often technical EIA reports, for instance, remain weak leading to uninformed and undemocratic decision making.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to build the capacity of the stakeholders like the affected community and grassroots activists to understand the entire clearance process and the technicalities of the EIA. This will enable them to argue their case if they are not convinced about the benefits of the project.
The role of regulators, especially those at the state level, is also becoming crucial in the entire process. The new proposals put forward by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) on EIA and clearance mechanisms emphasise the decentralisation of the decision-making process to state level. Thus, there is a genuine need to develop the capacity of the state-level regulators not only to screen and scope the EIA process but also to effectively evaluate the EIA reports and conduct a fair public consultation.
Public consultation makes or breaks any regulatory process. Unfortunately, it is here that we fatally err. It is not enough to hear people. It is vital to ensure that they are heard. There should be no categorisation of people into those who can ask questions and those who cannot. The process must welcome scrutiny. It must also support knowledge based critiques, by funding open research on the projects, by opening schools that teach people the science of environmental impact assessment. It must push the concerns of people, because after all, that is its very purpose.
Ultimately, the EIA process is all about ensuring sustainable development including country’s industrial and developmental growth, taking people along. EIA can be a good decision-making tool but has many loopholes and weaknesses, which are manipulated by the industry. This has made the EIA process ineffective and meaningless. And we strongly believe that the process of decision making, if flawed, will not be good for development or for democracy.